Syphilis cases have soared in Europe over the past 10 years to the point where numbers have reached an all-time high, according to a new report.
For the first time since the early 2000s, the sexually transmitted infection (STI) is more common in some countries than new cases of HIV, health experts have warned.
Reported cases of the STI are up by 70% since 2010, the report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) revealed. It’s suggested this increase has been driven by more unprotected sex and riskier sexual behaviour among gay men.
Andrew Amato-Gauci, an ECDC expert on STIs, said the increase could also be due to the fact there seems to be a “reduced fear” among people about acquiring HIV.
The infection has been on the rise in England for some time – statistics released by Public Health England (PHE) this year found rates increased by 5% between 2017 and 2018.
The ECDC, which monitors health and disease in Europe, said more than 260,000 syphilis cases were reported in 30 countries from 2007 to 2017. The prevalence of the STI varied greatly by country – rates more than doubled in Britain, Germany, Ireland, Iceland and Malta, but halved in Estonia and Romania.
Close to two-thirds of the cases reported between 2007 and 2017 where sexual orientation was known were in men who have sex with men, the ECDC report said, while heterosexual men contributed 23% of cases and women 15%.
If left untreated, syphilis can prove life-altering, resulting in serious damage to the heart, brain and nervous system. In some cases it can prove fatal.
What Are The Symptoms Of Syphilis?
Syphilis has three stages, as explained by sexual health charity BPAS. The first stage often presents itself as a painless sore (or multiple sores) around the vagina or penis. These sores might appear in the mouth or around the anus.
The second stage of the infection may appear as a rash or flu-like symptoms. Rashes are generally quite blotchy and red, affecting the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, according to the NHS. People may also experience tiredness, headaches, joint pain, a high temperature and swollen glands.
“If left untreated, syphilis can prove life-altering”
Some might experience small skin growths (like genital warts) that develop on the vulva in women or around the anus in both men and women, and white patches in the mouth.
If left untreated, the infection can progress to third stage syphilis causing serious damage to the heart, brain, other internal organs, bones, eyes and nervous system. This can be deadly.
How Is Syphilis Treated?
If caught early, the infection can be relatively easy to treat. Like other STIs, treatment for first and second stage syphilis involves a course of antibiotics or a single antibiotic injection.
People should avoid penetrative or oral sex until at least two weeks after the treatment has finished and it’s important to bear in mind that you can catch syphilis more than once, even if you’ve been treated for it before.